Tuesday, February 6, 2001
In Colorado, the statutes that govern public meetings and public records are collectively known as "Sunshine Laws." It's an appropriate moniker for a set of rules designed to keep the light of public scrutiny shining on public business.
But government has ways of avoiding that scrutiny spots of shade it can duck into, so to speak. Most are reasonable.
For example, when City Council needs advice from its lawyer on pending litigation, it can hear that advice behind closed doors. Or when school board members want to debate what position they will take in upcoming labor negotiations, they can do so in private.
But spending too much time out of public sight erodes trust and increases suspicion that government is hiding something. Good public boards limit their executive sessions as much as possible.
Too often, however, we have seen government leaders misuse the executive session power afforded them under our Sunshine Laws either by holding an executive session at each meeting or by holding an executive session for the wrong reasons.
We have reported on local government bodies making decisions behind closed doors or holding public discussions in private. And the Yampa Valley isn't the only place it happens. Abuse of executive session powers occurs all across this state.
A bill soon to be introduced in the Legislature seeks to curb that abuse by making the state's Sunshine Laws shine even brighter. The bill, sponsored by both a Republican and Democrat, will require governments to provide more detail about why they're going into an executive session before they close the doors. For example, when City Council members want to hear that advice from their lawyer, they'll have to say the executive session is for "pending litigation involving an accident on the Yampa Core Trail" rather than just for "legal matters."
The bill also will require that minutes be taken of the executive session. This record would not be open to public inspection unless a judge orders it to be, because of some question as to what was discussed in private. Keeping a record of executive sessions is not a new idea, 14 other states require private government meetings to be taped. Just a small percentage of the tapes are ever heard, but the system tends to stop those discussions that should not occur in closed session.
Watch for local governments to come out against this bill. They may cite the need to protect sensitive personnel matters, or say the law will limit their ability to effectively manage public affairs.
Don't believe it. More public scrutiny is never a bad idea when it comes to government.
The executive session bill deserves the support of the Legislature and the support of the public. It will bring additional light to shine on government and by doing so, will allow new seeds of trust to grow.